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Updated Jan 4, 2024, 12:48pm EST
North America
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Semafor Signals

Drastic drop in murders caused the popularity of El Salvador’s president to soar

Insights from Foreign Policy, Washington Post, and El País

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 El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele speaks during the inauguration of the Vijosa pharmaceutical plant in Santa Tecla, El Salvador November 20, 2023.
REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/File Photo
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El Salvador authorities announced Wednesday that homicides dropped nearly 70% year over year, with 495 occuring in 2022 compared to just 154 in 2023.

Commentators have attributed the dramatic decrease to the Central American country’s hard-line approach to crime, questioning whether the same strategies could be applied to other Latin American nations struggling with gang violence.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Bukele’s tough-on-crime strategy has made him popular…

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Sources:  
Reuters, Foreign Policy, CID Gallup

President Nayib Bukele has spearheaded a strict gang crackdown over the last few years, including a decree that allowed police to quickly jail tens of thousands of suspected gang members without a lawyer, who are then tried in group trials. That approach, combined with Bukele’s “suave internet bro” persona, has made him exceedingly popular in a country that once had the highest per capita murder rate in the world, Foreign Policy wrote. He has a 90% approval rating ahead of next month’s presidential elections, according to one recent poll, and “it doesn’t seem like anything can stop him.”

...but critics say it risks violating human rights.

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Sources:  
Washington Post, The Guardian

Bukele’s “iron fist” approach won’t work in the long term, columnist Eduardo Porter argued in The Washington Post. He has repeatedly come under fire from human rights groups who say El Salvador is depriving detainees of their civil rights, pointing to high numbers of deaths behind bars. Porter said the country will eventually have to grapple with what to do with 100,000 people imprisoned, who make up 1.6% of the country’s population and are mostly young men. “The challenge is to come up with viable alternatives that do not require giving up civil liberties, accountability and justice,” Porter wrote.

Similar crime policies are coming to other Latin American countries

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Sources:  
El País, Reuters, AP

Ecuador, which also has a high homicide rate, has started construction on two maximum security prisons to accommodate more detainees. The Ecuadorian president also wants to hold a referendum on tighter security measures. It essentially will facilitate a “permanent state of exception,” in which more people will be put behind bars, where their human rights could be violated, a local security analyst said. Bukele himself is capitalizing on his rising regional profile by campaigning beyond his borders, including during a two-hour forum on X Wednesday.

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